The Last Samurai

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The ViewQueenstown Review

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Review byMatthew Turner5/01/2004

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 154 mins

A lot better than both the trailer and the Dances With Wolves Meets Braveheart label would have you believe, this is well-acted, with a decent script and superb fight sequences.

The Last Samurai is the first of several armour-plated historical / action epics to arrive on our screens this year, since Troy, Alexander and King Arthur are all waiting in the wings. As such, it sets the bar pretty high (despite its po-faced trailer), since it combines a decent script with strong performances and impressive battle sequences – it’s even picking up a few Oscar whispers, so the producers probably figure that the reductive label won’t actually do them any harm.

Samurai Rebellion

Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall), the film is set in 1877, the year of the samurai rebellion, though the film takes several historical liberties and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than pure fiction.

Tom Cruise stars as Captain Nathan Algren, a US soldier driven to drink and depression by his role in the Indian Campaigns (several references are made to Custer’s Last Stand). Recruited to train Japanese troops to combat the samurai rebellion, he finds himself captured by the samurai leader Katsumoto (Japanese star Ken Watanabe) and gradually comes to understand and respect both his captors and their way of life.

Cruise is surprisingly good as Algren – there’s barely a trace of his trademark grin, since his character is mostly rather serious, though he warms up about mid-way through. There is, however, a little bit of a Cruise Factor to overcome, since he does have both gleaming white teeth and perfect hair throughout, not to mention looking slightly silly in the armour.

Strong Support

There’s a strong support cast, too, from reliable stalwarts such as Billy Connolly (playing the fabulously-named Zebulon Gant), Timothy Spall (Spallness Factor: pleasingly low – he doesn’t cry at all) and Tony Goldwyn (as the ‘evil’ Colonel Bagley), to a host of Japanese stars, such as Watanabe, Koyuki (as Algren’s under-stated love interest) and Hiroyuki Sanada as Katsumoto’s chief warrior. Watanabe, in particular, is excellent – the gradual friendship between his character and Algren is both moving and well-observed.

In a film such as The Last Samurai, the most important question the audience wants answered is ‘Do the battle scenes come up to scratch?’ and the answer here is a resounding ‘Yes’. Zwick has had success with Civil War era pictures before, so he knows a thing or two about staging battle sequences and the climactic conflict is both heart-breaking and impressive.

However, there are also several terrific fight scenes along the way, the best of which involves a breath-taking sequence in which the samurais are attacked by ninja warriors.

In short, don’t be put off by the rather laughable trailer, as The Last Samurai is an intelligent, well-written, impressively acted and directed epic adventure movie that even manages to take some sly swipes at American Imperialism along the way. Recommended.

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Content updated: 19/04/2019 15:16

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